In ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, Leatherface is a disfigured character who kills people and tries to wear their faces, because of course, if you have a facial disfigurement you must be filled with self-loathing, as well as a burning hatred for those who don’t. We know that Freddy Krueger is evil because he’s disfigured; the Phantom of the Opera becomes a villain because he can’t possibly reveal his scars; and Jason Voorhees, with his disfigurement hidden behind a mask, demands your attention with murder.
Leading into Halloween, people with disabilities are everywhere... but not in the way many of them would like. If they aren’t wielding chainsaws and going on murderous rampages, then they are plotting world domination from wheelchairs and revelling in a variety of gruesome deaths. Ari Aster’s recent ‘Midsommar’ features Ruben, "the disabled one" as one character describes him - in keeping with Aster’s previous film ‘Hereditary’, in which physical and mental disability provides a metaphor for trauma and familial dysfunction, the disabled body once again becomes the monstrous body, used to convey a monstrous world. The recurring tropes of disability = evil and disfigurement = morally bankrupt are stereotypes as old as culture itself, but what exactly is so scary about them?
While Halloween is a great excuse to terrify ourselves and indulge in dark stories, it’s worth remembering that while horror entertainment frequently depicts people who look different negatively, there’s essentially no other popular media to counteract these depictions.
Writer/director Aaron Schimberg’s ‘Chained for Life’ is set behind the scenes of an art-house horror film, ‘The Undesirables’, the first American movie from Herr Director (Charlie Korsmo), a German auteur with a wonky accent. He’s clearly based on Werner Herzog, who filmed his own problematic exploitation film, ‘Even Dwarfs Started Small’, in 1970.
A slumming movie star, Mabel (Jess Weixler, ‘It Chapter 2’), is hoping to acquire some art-house credibility with the film. She signs on to play a blind woman seeking treatment at a strange 1950s sanitarium, run by a Mengele-like eugenicist (Stephen Plunkett) experimenting on people with disfigurements in order to "cure" the world of all abnormality. The hospital has giants, dwarves, Siamese twins and all manner of spooky-looking inhabitants. Mabel becomes aware of the privilege her beauty brings her via her budding friendship with Rosenthal (Adam Pearson, ‘Under The Skin’), an actor with neurofibromatosis, a severe facial disfigurement.
The entertainment industry regularly comes under fire for allowing abled actors to play disabled roles, thereby denying disabled actors the opportunity. The problem has become so bad that the Ruderman Foundation recently reported that an incredible 95% of disabled characters on television are played by able-bodied actors. Stephen Chbosky’s ‘Wonder’ received criticism from the craniofacial-conditions community, who called it "inspiration porn". Rather than cast a person with a craniofacial condition to play the lead, for example, the character was portrayed by Jacob Tremblay who wore prosthetics and special effects makeup to look the part.
Schimberg avoids these "inspiration porn" and saviour narratives by teetering on the edge of exploitation and casting actors with congenital disabilities to play the actors in the film-within-a-film.
Schimberg avoids these "inspiration porn" and saviour narratives by teetering on the edge of exploitation and casting actors with congenital disabilities to play the actors in the film-within-a-film. Note: this is a decision that’s condemned as exploitative by the characters within the film.
We watch as Mabel quietly observes Rosenthal from a distance, wondering about what his life must be like. He’s friendly, drolly British and self-aware, which makes her question her own prejudices and values. She performs acting exercises with him, and the director lets us observe each actor’s facial features via long takes (slightly reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang's ‘Your Face’).
Weixler played a beautiful teen struggling with a hidden deformity (vagina dentata) in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s offbeat comic-horror film ‘Teeth’, and has since become a master at inhabiting characters bubbling with inner conflict beneath a composed exterior - Mabel is uncertain but nice, maybe to the point of over-compensation and condescension. Pearson, a less experienced actor, exudes a laconic charm and natural likeability - Rosenthal is endlessly patient, with a touching, possibly misplaced optimism about his own artistry. When Max, the doltish lead actor, loudly insists, "You'd make a great Richard III!", Rosenthal reacts with bemusement.
‘Chained for Life’ eventually becomes tangled in its own trickery by attempting to add too many layers to it's Russian doll structure, as Rosenthal and the rest of the disabled cast begin making their own film (where they play heroes, rather than monsters) on set after the rest of the cast and crew go back to their hotel. With the addition of this film-within-the-film-within-a-film, the three movies battle for attention around the midway point, causing the pacing of the increasingly surreal narrative to slacken.
On the whole, though, the script’s showbiz satire is smart and wickedly playful (there’s mention of a facially scarred killer lurking in the vicinity of the film shoot à la the dwarf in Nicolas Roeg’s 'Don’t Look Now'), and the meta aspects are thoughtfully incorporated, if occasionally self-satisfied. Not unlike Tom DiCillo’s indie comedy ‘Living in Oblivion’, these characters inhabit a tiny world that becomes seductively real, and the performers display a shared sense of purpose as they convey the perils of creative endeavour.
An amusing, cunningly structured meta-commentary on filmmaking and cinematic ideals of beauty, ‘Chained for Life’ is also an inside joke with a generosity of heart and humour that makes it accessible to anyone who would take an interest.